The view from the ground.

Commandos for Jesus

Meet the former Green Berets delivering aid to some of the most blighted corners of Burma, and saving souls along the way.

Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages
Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages
Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages

See more photos of the Rangers here. 

See more photos of the Rangers here. 

At a military training camp in the lush mountains of northern Burma, a lean, square-jawed American stood at the front of a makeshift classroom adorned with the flags of the Kachin Independence Army. Before him sat dozens of recruits from the ethnic insurgent army and other groups opposed to the central government, controlled until recently by a ruthless military regime. They listened intently from behind small wooden desks, dressed in billowy fatigues and matching green T-shirts. A sign high above them read: "Our fighting ability will be determined by how we train our leaders."

Doug, a second-generation American missionary and former Green Beret, wore a dark green baseball cap, shorts, and a snug black T-shirt emblazoned with insignias modeled after those of the U.S. Army Rangers, but inscribed with the words "Free Burma Rangers." He had come with his Christian-led organization to Kachin State, a resource-rich corner of Burma abutting China, at the behest of local rebel leaders. In June 2011, renewed fighting in the area had ended a 17-year ceasefire between the ethnic rebels and the central government.

"We are here because we all love freedom," he said, his voice reverberating off the walls of the hangar-like building. "Who gave us freedom? Where does it come from? God! God gave us freedom because he loves us."

The students, who ranged in age from 19 to 50, had already completed weeks of training at the camp near the busy border town of Laiza. The Free Burma Rangers aimed to teach them to deliver aid to civilians in remote jungle hamlets, while simultaneously evading and reporting on the Burmese army. Some students had traveled from other parts of the country, officially known as Myanmar, to learn how to use a GPS in the jungle; swim across a river with an improvised flotation device; shoot video and write reports; rappel from a bridge; treat villagers for wounds, malaria, and dysentery; and gingerly locate and remove land mines from the soil.

There is ample need for such skills: Human rights groups have long accused the Burmese military, which ruled the country for decades and engaged in the world’s longest-running civil war, of abuses such as forced labor and rape.

Many of the students’ instructors were Christian missionaries from the United States, among them a doctor from Michigan, a former Navy Seabee from Oregon, and a software engineer from Wisconsin. Doug himself is a former U.S. Army Ranger who had also served with the Special Forces, advising foreign militaries in Central and South America in the 1980s. He had arrived to join the students for the final phase of their training — a two-week mission along the front line of the conflict, where rebel and Burmese soldiers eyed each other uneasily from foxholes and trenches on opposing mountaintops.

The students would test their new skills by helping some of the estimated 75,000 civilians who had fled their villages and flocked to camps along the border. They would also creep through the jungle and peer through binoculars at Burmese army camps during reconnaissance forays.

"Have no doubt, you’re here for the right reason, for freedom," Doug continued. (He and the other Westerners in the group asked to be granted anonymity due to security concerns.) "In this training, learn everything you can; when you go to the front line, you will be the hero."

For the past 15 years, Doug has worked as a sort of humanitarian commando in the jungles of Burma, leading clandestine missions into the country’s war zones. After nearly a decade in the Army, he left for Fuller Seminary in California where he became an ordained minister. He returned to Southeast Asia, where he had grown up with missionary parents, and became a missionary himself.

Doug started the Free Burma Rangers after witnessing a refugee exodus during an offensive by the Burmese army in Burma’s Karen State in 1997. Inspired by the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had met a year earlier, he eventually left his job as a mainline Protestant Christian missionary to work full-time with the country’s ethnic minorities. Now, his teams bring medical supplies and "help, hope, and love" to civilians caught amid the fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic insurgents.

Over the years, the Free Burma Rangers have grown from a ragtag band of four volunteers to a network of more than 300 people scattered throughout Burma’s conflict zones. With an annual budget of more than $1 million in donations from churches and individuals across the United States and Europe, the Rangers often carry backpacks stuffed with medicine, toys, and Bibles to areas beyond the reach of conventional aid agencies. They also carry guns to defend themselves and villagers who may be under attack — a choice that has put them at odds with some potential donors.

While the Rangers don’t describe themselves as a religious organization, they are led by Christian missionaries and espouse a distinctly Christian message. In many ways, they reflect fundamental shifts in the overseas American missionary movement since it began 200 years ago this year, focusing on humanitarian work and a holistic approach rather than straightforward evangelism.

The first organized international American missionaries boarded a cargo ship in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1812. These five young men, newly ordained as Congregational missionaries, along with their wives and fiancées, sailed to India and were later expelled by the British. Two of them, Adoniram and Ann Judson, had become Baptists and continued their journey to Burma, where Adoniram would work for decades, translating the Bible into the local language and publishing a Burmese-English dictionary that is still used today. The Judsons remain such a presence among Christians in Burma, who now account for 4 percent of the population in this predominantly Buddhist country, that Baptists there still celebrate "Judson Sunday" each year to mark the date of their arrival.

They were hardly the first Western missionaries to venture forth into the world. By the time the Judsons left the United States, about 25,000 European missionaries — more than half of them Catholic — had already fanned out across the globe, said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. American missionaries would later achieve a sort of celebrity as explorers and adventurers, regaling audiences at home with tales of their exploits in far-off lands. They also drew scorn as exponents of colonialism and remain controversial today, even within church circles. Some see them as cultural imperialists, others as spiritual heroes.

The definition and role of the American missionary has changed dramatically since the days of Judson. Today’s missionaries — like Doug and the Free Burma Rangers — tend to operate independently, or through organizations unaffiliated with the mainline denominations that historically have run missionary agencies. Rather than commit several years or much of their lives to mission work, many modern missionaries undertake short-term trips abroad. They also may not have attended a seminary or received training in skills such as languages, as their predecessors often did.

After World War II, a period of nationalism and decolonization augured the decline of the so-called mainline missionaries, according to Dana L. Robert, a Boston University professor and author of Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. With newly independent countries declaring moratoriums on missionaries, independent evangelical missionaries moved in to fill the gap.

"The current situation is almost a total free-for-all," Robert said. "With globalization in communication and transportation in the last 25 years, there’s been an exponential increase of short-term volunteer missions. So, you know, somebody sitting at home with an Internet connection can virtually set up a mission."

The nature of missionary work has also changed. Unlike their forebears, modern American missionaries tend to focus more on humanitarian work than evangelism, even if their motive of serving God remains largely the same. Some missionaries today bristle at the very mention of the word "proselytize."

Jonathan J. Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in Connecticut, said that missionaries have long been involved in social justice issues as well as winning converts. "‘Missionary’ in the past, and I think still in the public imagination, is an intrepid white religious adventurer who goes somewhere to plant churches and evangelize," he said. "But in fact when you look at what missionaries actually did from the very beginning, they always did more than that.

The Free Burma Rangers practice a bold form of missionary work, often in difficult circumstances. I traveled with the group to Kachin State earlier this year to learn about their activities in the country where the Judsons had traveled two centuries earlier. Christian missionaries were outlawed by successive military regimes starting in the early 1960s, though they continued to work quietly within its borders. The Free Burma Rangers — whose volunteers have included Buddhists, animists, and at least one atheist — slip into Burma from neighboring countries with the cooperation of ethnic rebels.

The mission to Kachin State entailed hiking about 100 miles on jungle footpaths and dirt roads that linked military outposts, border towns and abandoned villages. Some of the houses along the way had been ransacked or burned to the ground months earlier by Burmese troops. We followed a route near the Chinese border, where weary-eyed Kachin soldiers guarded freshly dug trenches and low-slung bamboo huts, smoking cigarettes and clutching walkie-talkies.

The Free Burma Rangers typically work in ethnic-controlled areas with substantial Christian populations. In Kachin State, a largely Baptist and Catholic enclave, towering wooden crosses stood along roads and paths that led to villages we visited. Thatch-roofed huts had small crosses affixed to their walls, perhaps the legacy of an early American missionary who traveled to the area in the 1830s.

Fighting had been sporadic since long-simmering tensions burst into violence last year near a Chinese-operated hydropower dam. More than 100 Kachin soldiers and 60 civilians had been killed in the conflict so far, Kachin officials said. Doug referred to the environment as a "50 percent war" that nonetheless could leave you "100 percent dead." Some days we heard mortars and artillery thudding in the distance. Land mines — the more immediate, pervasive threat — exploded almost daily in the dense jungle around us, likely triggered by heavy monsoonal rains. Early one morning, a land mine exploded less than 50 yards from where I was sleeping in a bamboo shelter. Doug, sitting nearby, calmly told me the explosion would be followed by machine gun fire if it were the beginning of an attack, but we heard nothing further.

We often hiked in a column, the students outfitted with backpacks, jungle hats and uniforms decorated with Free Burma Rangers patches. Many carried locally made M-22 assault rifles balanced across their shoulders like baseball bats. Some days, we hiked for hours in blistering heat, cutting across mountainsides on narrow footpaths and trundling across rivers on swaying bridges fashioned from cable and wooden slats. We slept in hammocks and bamboo huts, sometimes in villages that were empty except for one or two residents and a few emaciated dogs.

Along the way, we stopped at camps where many of the area’s residents, from young mothers carrying grubby children to shriveled old men, had been living in plywood cubicles since fleeing their villages. There, the Rangers carried out their work: The routine began with one Ranger, arms outstretched, leading a Christian prayer. Doug then introduced himself and his wife and young children, who often accompany him on missions.

Other Rangers strapped on guitars and sang children’s songs, dancing in unison as crowds gathered and joined in. Some members of the Rangers — on this mission there were 61 people, most of them from Kachin State — spread tarps on the ground and opened makeshift medical clinics. They wore stethoscopes and handled blood-pressure cuffs, consulting with villagers and doling out anti-malaria medication and acetaminophen tablets. Some snapped on rubber gloves and, peering into the mouths of villagers, pulled teeth.

Doug’s wife led a program for women and children called the Good Life Club, an integral part of the Rangers’ drill. It included singing, anatomy lessons, and handouts of shirts, toothpaste, snacks, and toys. Rangers also gave out beaded bracelets, explaining that each colorful bead was meant to symbolize an aspect of Christian faith. Red beads, for example, represented the shedding of Jesus’ blood.

This sort of grassroots work, conducted over centuries, has already had a profound effect on Burma. It had taken Judson, the first American missionary in the country, six years to win his first convert. By the time he died in 1850, there were some 8,000 Baptists and 100 churches in Burma, according to Rosalie Hunt, author of the Judson biography Bless God and Take Courage. Today, more than 1.5 million Baptists live in Burma, which has a total population of more than 50 million.

Early missionaries suffered hardships almost unimaginable today — long sea voyages and disease remained a constant threat, as did suspicious local governments. Judson himself arrived in Burma at a time when the country was ruled by a despotic emperor, and he would later spend nearly two years in prison — surviving only through the efforts of his wife, Ann, who visited him and eventually persuaded authorities to release him.

"It was vastly more arduous in the 19th century than it is today," said Clifford Putney, an assistant professor of history at Bentley University in Massachusetts. "A lot of the missionaries never went home. So when you left, you were saying possibly goodbye forever to everything you had known, all your friends, all your family. There was no such thing as jetting back and forth for Christmas."

Waves of American missionaries have followed the Judsons’ path to foreign shores. The United States today sends more Christian missionaries abroad than any other country. It accounted for about 127,000 of the estimated 400,000 missionaries who traveled abroad in 2010, said Todd Johnson, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity director. It also receives the greatest number, with 32,400 missionaries arriving in 2010, he said. Many were Brazilians who came to work in Brazilian communities, Johnson added.

But globally, Christianity is no longer a predominantly Western religion. Over the past century, as Christianity has declined in Europe and the United States, it has grown in Africa, Asia, and Latin America — regions where early missionaries traveled. In 1910, some 80 percent of all Christians were European or North American. By 2010 that number had fallen to 40 percent, Johnson said. This fact has prompted Western churches to rethink the sending of missionaries, he noted, partly because they may no longer be needed in countries where local churches have taken on their own responsibilities. In many cases, he said, those churches have not wanted missionaries so they could grow within their own cultures.

Baptist Christians in the United States still honor the efforts of Judson. In February, dozens of Baptists gathered on a pier in the once-thriving seaport of Salem, Massachusetts, for a reenactment of the Judsons’ departure. The ceremony, part of a series of events to mark the 200th anniversary of the couple’s four-month sea journey, featured actors playing Adoniram and Ann Judson who wore period costumes and gave farewell speeches before walking toward an imaginary ship. In the audience were Burmese Christians who spoke of plans to commemorate the couple’s arrival in Burma next year.

One goal of the Free Burma Rangers has been to train members of Burma’s ethnic armies to undertake their own humanitarian missions, much as Judson had encouraged tribal converts to work among their own people. After being trained, the teams — there are currently 59 of them working among 11 ethnic groups — receive logistical and material support from the Rangers’ staff of about 30 Western volunteers based in a neighboring country. Among the volunteers are American missionaries in their 30s who are supported by churches and friends in the United States. Some return home to work seasonal jobs during the summer.

"We feel like we’re God’s hands and feet on the ground, helping these people," said Jerry, 31, an avid rock climber from Nashville, Tennessee, who has worked with the Rangers since 2007. "And for myself personally, I’m a Christian and I believe this is doing God’s work."

That work has come at a considerable price. Several ethnic Rangers have died on missions — one was shot in the back while trying to escape Burmese soldiers in 2010, for example. Others have died from diseases such as malaria. Although they avoid contact with the Burmese army, the Rangers on rare occasions have found themselves embroiled in firefights. Given those circumstances, Doug’s background and military mindset have been essential to the group’s ability to maneuver through Burma’s war zones.

By the end of the mission to Kachin State, the Free Burma Rangers had visited some 12,000 people and collected information on 15 Burmese army camps, which they said were being resupplied despite orders months earlier by the country’s reformist president, Thein Sein, to halt attacks. The president, who was elected with the backing of the military and took office last year, has introduced democratic reforms and forged ceasefire agreements with several other ethnic rebel groups, but talks with the Kachin so far have fizzled out. Like other ethnic groups in Burma, the Kachin have been pushing for greater autonomy and access to resources. "We’re not sure if these ceasefires will last or not, and our job hasn’t changed at all," Doug said. "If there’s no need for us, we’ll stop."

The mission of the Free Burma Rangers also transcends any narrow improvement in the country’s political life. At the military camp near Laiza, Doug said the goal of his teams was not only to give humanitarian assistance and report news from the front line, "but to stand in love with people who are in need of love and in need of hope and to remind them that the world hasn’t forgotten them."

"And for me, most importantly, God hasn’t forgotten," he added. "And I believe God has an opinion about justice, and in Burma there is a great lack of justice."

Daniel Lovering is a journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reporting for this story was supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion.

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